Lately I’ve been feeling like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. (Yes, I know I’m not the only one.) Thinking of that phrase this morning reminded me of Hecules and how he carried the sky (or some say the world) on his shoulders as part of one of his labors.
As you might remember, Hercules (Greek Heracles) was a demi-god, a son of Zeus. In the myth, he murdered his wife and children in a fit of madness. To atone, he was given twelve nearly-impossible tasks to perform. One of the last was to obtain the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The titan Atlas, who held up the heavens (or some say, the world) was one of the few who knew the location of the sacred garden where the apples could be found. Atlas refused to disclose the location, but offered to fetch the apples himself if Hercules would hold up the sky while he was gone.
Contemplating the story, I wrote this poem some years back…
Hercules with the Sky on His Shoulders
Who’d have thought the sky could be so heavy?
Below it looks so empty, full of light,
Not this altar slab of bloody marble
Pinching the bone at the back of my neck.
I should have thought to fold the lion skin,
Make it a pillow to soften the pain.
The Nemean Lion–there was a foe.
His famous hide no blade or point could pierce.
Lucky I caught him sleeping, belly full.
Still, not many heroes, or even gods,
Could have strangled him, won that prize pelt. But
I was stronger then, not so worn with toil.
So many labors, monsters, wars–For what?
Expiation? How can that be justice
When you can’t even remember the crime?
Only awaking from a drunken sleep
To recognize the slaughtered innocents:
My wife, my babies–No! Don’t think about it.
I might have been a fool to trust that giant;
He seemed a bit too ready to oblige,
As if, almost, he knew I was coming.
Maybe Hera put a plan in his ear:
Offer to fetch the gold apples yourself;
Leave him supporting the sky forever.
Oh, that would be so very like the gods:
Send a man fishing in a leaky boat
Then wonder at his prayers as he’s drowning.
Better luck to try and drain the ocean.
That’s always been my way: tear up the roots,
Topple the whole…Yes, look where it’s brought me.
What would happen if I just let it go,
Slip aside and let the Cosmos collapse?
Would Olympus fall, and Zeus my father–
If he is my father–Would his house fall?
The glorious palace, the smug, bright gods…
If I could only be there to see it.
But would it be so bad to wake a shade
In Hades realm, to slowly fade to nothing?
No more tragedies, no scenes at all,
Just a quiet, merciful dissolving…
No! I can bear this pain much, much longer.
My knees will not buckle; I am resolved.
When the giant returns, although it be
Only to smirk and gloat, I’ll find a way
To make him take back his burden, and then
Carry the apples back to Argolis,
Laugh at the king’s dire disappointment
As I spill them glittering at his feet.
I will finish his trials, every one.
And on the day I’m released, scale the heights
Of Olympus, break down the shining doors,
Storm through the gaggle of horrified gods,
Face Zeus, stare into his uncaring eye,
And demand to know the reason.
Hope you liked my little poem. And if you’re struggling to hold up your world right now, take heart.
Even demigods must endure hard times.
For more stories based on Greek mythology, check out my Conjurer of Rhodes titles.